As UN police patrol Dubai, Putin sits down to one-on-one talks with Emirati leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin began a trip Wednesday to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, hoping to shore up support in the Mideast from two major oil producers allied to the US as his war on Ukraine grinds on.
Putin landed in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms now hosting the United Nations’ COP28 climate talks. It marked his first trip to the region since before the coronavirus pandemic and the war — and as he faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court over the war in Ukraine.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE has signed the ICC founding treaty, meaning they don’t face any obligation to detain Putin over the warrant.
The Russian president is accused of being personally responsible for the abductions of children from Ukraine during his war on the country.
However, the visit comes as armed UN police patrol a portion of Dubai’s Expo City now considered international territory for the talks.
The meeting is widely seen as highlighting the Emirates’ expansive business ties to Russia, which have exploded at a time when grinding Western sanctions have targeted Moscow.
Ukrainians on hand for the event expressed outrage over Putin being in the country at the same time they described him as committing environmental crimes in their country.
“It is extremely upsetting to see how the world treats war criminals, because that’s what he is, in my opinion,” said Marharyta Bohdanova, a Ukrainian attendee at COP28, wiping away tears. “Seeing how people let people like him in the big events, … treating him like a dear guest, is just so hypocritical in my opinion.”
A readout on Putin’s trip from the state-run Tass news agency published early Wednesday offered no suggestion Putin might come to the COP28 site.
It instead quoted Russian presidential aide Yury Ushakov saying he’d land and have a “meeting at the palace” and one-on-one talks with Emirati leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The visit comes after COP28 saw a parade of Western leaders including US Vice President Kamala Harris, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and others backing Ukraine speak at the summit.
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, long a Putin ally, also controversially spoke.
The UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change’s spokesperson Alexander Saier said at a press conference that he is “not aware that Mr. Putin will come to the conference, but I would also need to check the host country with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
He declined to immediately answer whether UN police would be obligated to make an arrest.
The Emirati organisation committee for COP28 referred questions to the UAE’s Foreign Ministry, which did not immediately respond.
Putin last visited the UAE in 2019, receiving a warm welcome from Sheikh Mohammed, then the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. In the time since, however, the world has changed.
The Russian president launched an invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, sparking a grinding war that continues today. The conflict is also a hot topic for Ukrainian diplomats at the climate talks.
“I’m talking about his crimes and this person is literally right now here, somewhere near me,” said Alina Abramenko, another member of the Ukrainian pavilion that highlights the environmental damage wrought by the war. “You know, it’s really strange.”
Meanwhile, the Israel-Hamas war remains a major concern for the Middle East, particularly the UAE, which diplomatically recognised Israel in 2020.
Recent attacks by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels also threaten commercial shipping in the Red Sea, with Iran’s nuclear programme continuing its rapid advance since the collapse of the 2016 nuclear deal.
Putin is scheduled to meet with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Thursday for what Ushakov has described as “a rather lengthy conversation.”
The two countries have been discussing ways to get around the Western sanctions targeting them.
Putin will travel to Saudi Arabia and meet with powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the one-day trip, Ushakov said. Those discussions likely will focus on Moscow’s other major concern in the Middle East – oil.
Russia is part of OPEC, a cartel that manages production to try and boost crude oil prices.
Last week, the group expanded some output cuts into next year and brought up-and-coming oil supplier Brazil into the fold.